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Vancouver Theatre: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
Book and Lyrics by Steven Slater
based on the play by Frank Wedekind
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by David Hudgins
Musical Director Andy Toth
Choreographer  Shelley Stuart Hunt
at Studio 58, Langara College
Jan 31 to  Feb 24, 2013

Vancouver, BC: I have been waiting to see this show for several years. It seems like every time it is on in a particular city, I have either just missed it or leave before it opens so I am  glad to have finally caught this show, especially with the talented students of Studio 58 taking on what is quite a challenging work.

Based on Frank Wedekind's  controversial 1891 play, Spring Awakening, about burgeoning sexuality in a group of young people in 19th century Germany, the rock musical adaptation does not hold back in portraying the raw sexuality of the youth in question, nor the fears and the ignorance of both youth and adults in the provincial German town in which it's set.

From the hypocritically modest parents to the smug, self-righteous schoolteachers, the adults provide models of obfuscation, denial and "head in the sand" behaviour when the subject of sex, reproduction or birth is brought up, going so far as to expel their brightest student for his accurate description and depiction of genitalia and intercourse. It is not surprising that "surprise" pregnancies would occur when the parents refuse to explain the truth of where babies come from. Pulling no punches, the play touches on varied aspects of sexuality and traumas among the youth, from themes of child abuse and incest,  homosexuality, heterosexual intercourse, pregnancy and abortion, to suicide.

While the play ends on a fairly bleak note -- the two most lovable characters having died (Moritz [Dallas Sauer] commits suicide, Wendla [Lauren Jackson] dies after a back street abortion) -- the protagonist, Melchior (Riun Garner) having escaped from a reformatory, moves ahead with the spirits of his friends guiding him. This role was well played by the handsome and earnest Garner, his sense of outrage and indignation palpable, although as yet he lacks the vocal chops to fully fill the role. His love, Wendla is unbelievably innocent, but Jackson does an excellent job in making that innocence real.  Even when she discovers that she is pregnant, her honest surprise that simply "being" with Melchior and "sharing his love" could produce a baby seemed true, even to this jaded reviewer. 

The school boy ensemble of Garner, Sauer, Dominic Duchesne, Alex Strong, William Ford Hopkins and Maximillian Wallace, was very strong and played off each other very well. As Moritz, Sauer was a standout. His performance was dynamic and his angst palpable, perpetually watchable. The music is challenging but in a series of numbers with memorable lyrics, the most gut-wrenching was the duet - The Dark I Know Well - between the sexually abused Martha (Erica Hoeksema) and  Ilse (Stephanie Izsak) the abused runaway.

The choreography was great - marvelously raunchy in some numbers - and the student cast handled it really well. In general the singing though enthusiastic was more of a challenge for the cast.

The play underlying the musical, though written in 1891, could not be produced till 1906 - and subsequently the raw subject matter led to further censorship and attempts to ban it outright. In today's context, I found it more depressing than shocking. While the irrational bigotry and sanctimoniousness of the adults portrayed here as theatre is obviously extreme, their behaviour though perhaps more subtle can as easily happen today.  I would describe this rock musical as interesting rather than enjoyable, and there are no easy "hummable" or even "belt-able" tunes  but it is an opportunity to see  a show that, on Broadway won 8 Tony awards including best Book and Best Score, as well as 4 Drama Desk Awards. And after waiting several years,  I have finally seen it.